Turning into an “Alley Cat”

In my list of favorite designers held in high esteem, there are many which I know are inaccessible – I will probably never wear or own an original by them and only experience their creations in a museum.  Then, I have another list of top favorite designers that are exciting in an attainable way because I do own original pieces from them.  Betsey Johnson is at the top of the latter list…I have three of her vintage inspired silk dresses from the 90’s and 2000 era.  I adored her clothing styles as a teenager!  Wishing to understand more of her career after all these years, though, I am thrilled to have finally sewed up my own Betsey Johnson dress which hails from her rise to fame under the “Alley Cat” line.  This dress is from an important year in her history – 1971, the year Johnson received the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award.

In Betsey Johnson ads from the early 1970s (such as this one), these dresses are labelled as the “frontier-look”, but her spin on such old-fashioned style has a sleek look and stylish edge.  Even though there is almost 4 yards of fabric in this dress, I am miraculously not swallowed up in frills and gathers.  Instead, I feel slim in the way it has first-rate shaping and smart details that show off the body.  This dress lacks the homeliness of the normal prairie dress with its 1970s era youth oriented trendiness.  All these points help my dress be very wearable by being versatile, something which is a classic trait for Betsey Johnson’s clothing.  This dress can be sweet and simple (the way I styled it), but when paired with my 70’s boots, different jewelry, and bold makeup, I have found it can lean more on the punk side, an influence that Betsey Johnson preferred.  Her fashion offerings – at their core – was about a punk inspired spirit of rebellion…wearing what you want, how you want, and not being afraid to show both the pretty and the gritty side of being a girl. 

Even though this dress and its fabric – both being from the 1970s – makes my garment vintage in its own right, the way it turned out would make me think it was a modern “cottage core” dress loosely inspired by vintage.  The prestigious FIDM museum says, “Johnson designed vintage-inspired prairie dresses with small floral prints.”  I stayed true to that but it turned out so fresh, I was happily surprised by that.  More so, however, I wanted to show how Betsey Johnson had an alternative means of ‘rocking’ (literally, she was popular with the pop music culture of the era) the prairie trend differently than her contemporaries for such style, the fellow American Jessica McClintock (of the 80’s Gunne Sax, see my version here) or the British Laura Ashley.  I think I found that sweet spot of interpreting Betsey Johnson’s unique style to bring my own Alley Cat to life!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  two 100% cotton prints from 1970s (or possibly early 1980s); there was 3 ½ yards of the overall dress floral and ¾ yard of the contrast floral

PATTERN:  Butterick #6531, year 1971, an original vintage pattern from my personal collection

NOTIONS NEEDED:  one 22” long zipper, some bias tape, and lots of thread – that’s it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress came together quickly in about 15 hours of sewing and was finished at the end of October 2022.

THE INSIDES:  These cottons are fairly densely woven, so they really don’t unravel much (I can tell by the way the raw ends didn’t unravel when I washed the fabric before cutting). I simply zig-zag stitched over the raw ends inside.

TOTAL COST:  this dress was as good as almost free, since the notions I needed were on hand from my Grandmother’s stash and the cotton fabrics came from a large box of 50-something assorted vintage fabrics I bought for $10 from an antique shop. 

I spent just as much time doing preliminary preparation – tracing the pattern, sizing it up to fit me, and then cutting it out – as I did actually sewing the dress together.  Betsey Johnson’s offerings were geared to the juniors and teens market, so much so that even for those styles which are in ‘adult’ sizing (such as the dresses I have from the 90’s) are still tailored for someone short-waisted in smaller sizes.  In vintage Betsey Johnson pieces, the most commonly found ready-to-wear size is 2 through 6, and they run a size smaller than listed.  All this works for me because I am still close to my teen years’ sizing and also borderline petite, but I know this limits many women from wearing her designs.  The opportunity of having Betsey Johnson’s designs in commercial patterns opens a big door of inclusiveness by making them available for ladies of all sizes…as long as you know how to grade!  The sizing chart on the back of my pattern shows that it wasn’t offered above a size 12, equivalent to a size 6 today.  My Betsey Johnson dresses are size 4 and 6 but they fit (snugly) thanks in part to being on the bias cut.  This dress pattern is laid out on the straight grain and I did not want this to be as tight fitting, being cut in a cotton and not a silk like my other dresses.  Thus, I had to dedicate some good time to fully adjust the pattern before I could dive into sewing.

I kept in mind the sizing trend of my existing Betsey Johnson dresses and came into this project half-expecting the same from this Butterick pattern even though it was in what appeared to be the brand’s ‘normal’ adult sizing looking at the envelope chart.  However, everything I was seeing from all the measurements I was taking from off of the pattern pieces told me this was a real-deal Betsey Johnson design…I was ecstatic!  So, I graded the pattern up with an extra inch bigger than what I needed and kept the petite proportions.  It turned out just as I expected, true to Betsey Johnson sizing, and fit me perfectly with no adjustments needed (beyond what I added into the pattern pieces).  This is one of the first clear examples I have found of a commercial pattern deviating from its company line of sizing to keep the designer’s sizing model instead.  This makes me super happy because it tells me this is a true designer pattern, not one that has been altered by Butterick to bow to their guidelines. I have yet not found such designer individuality with any Vogue brand designer patterns.  This heads-up knowledge of what sizing to expect was only possible because I had the opportunity to experience the clothes from this designer.  There is a special sewing related benefit to (as I mentioned above) enjoying those designers you find that are accessible and appealing to you.  It here paid off to be a “Betsey girl”!

My chosen two cotton fabric prints are a wonderful combination that do not match yet also complement one another just enough to actually go together.  I successfully figured out how to do this with my Gunne Sax dress…which also happened to be blue printed cottons, I know.  I was aware that I could end up being overly repetitive with this dress.  Thus, I used smaller all-over floral prints with a variation on the same colors.  The busier, smaller print on the side bodice panels and the sleeves was an already hacked up remnant that someone previously had cut several pieces from before I got the fabric.  Thus, even though I say the remnant was ¾ yard, actual usable space was much smaller and I just eked out the pattern pieces I wanted.  Up close, this contrast print is in triangles of tiny flowers, much like a faux ‘quilt’ paneling.  It adds to the low-key prairie flair of the dress.  The main floral has cheerful colors of coral pinks, blues, and tints of yellow in loosely thrown bouquets.  The blue of the berries in the main fabric print are much brighter in color than our pictures captured, and I had hoped my retro style wedges (Re-mix “holiday” shoes) would have brought out some of that tone.  The shoes happened to match what was drawn on the envelope cover’s model for the view C that I went with for my version!

Many of Betsey Johnson dresses from the 1980s and newer were made of flowing silks and polyester satins, but many of her prairie and kitsch inspired garments from the 1970s seemed to be in cotton.  The envelope back called for me to use “crisp fabric” or “soft fabric”…huh?  This was a confusing either-this-or-that choice, so I went for a bit of both.  Modern cottons are too stiff to be ideal, which is why I was thrilled to use this vintage cotton – it is luxuriously soft, lofty, and flowing.  At the same time, the fabric has enough body to let the gathered fluttery sleeves have their own definition.  Yet again, I find that vintage does fashion the smart and fun way! 

Several of the other fabric options for this pattern were crepe, voile, and – the most significant mention – knits.  Betsey Johnson was involved in dance school growing up, and she and her mom would sew the stretchy body suit costumes for her performances…fueling both her creative mind and her sewing talent from a young age.  Later, in 1964, Betsey Johnson had her first designing success by making velvet trimmed “sweaters that hug the body” with a batch of crocheted fabric she acquired (as she relates in her memoir book, “Betsey”).  Johnson at that time was in her early twenties and a “guest editor” of Mademoiselle Magazine, working in the fabrics department.  She had landed her role at the magazine by winning its summer scholarship contest.  Her first step into selling her designs was initially about survival because she needed rent money to supplement her editorial job but her little tops became popular and Betsey loved the opportunity to stretch her wings.  Thus, it’s no wonder the patterns she did for Butterick in the early 1970s (under the “Alley Cat” brand, when she was creative director there between ‘70 and ‘74) all either mention or prefer stretchy woven, sweater knit, or jersey material as a fabric choice since it was her first sewing experience. 

Knit fabric in a plaid or funky print is very much a Betsey Johnson thing and it was tempting to try as I had just the thing on hand!  However, as there are more than 3 yards in my dress, I was afraid a knit would have made it hang rather than float romantically.  This exact dress design was featured in the January 1972 edition of Seventeen magazine, along with several of the other views from the pattern I used as well as Betsey’s other Butterick offerings.  In the advertisement text, which can be viewed thanks to ”Gold Country Girls” blog (page here), it is hinted that Wyeth paintings were Betsey’s inspiration behind this dress design and magazine’s photo shoot, so I think using anything other than a dense but lightweight knit would have defeated her ideal here.  Ah, see – here I go diving headfirst into every aesthetic detail.  After years of admiring her brand, I love realizing just how this pattern completely sucked me into the joy of manifesting my own personal interpretation of Betsey Johnson’s style.  Her Alley Cat line was before my time, after all, so this is different than the Betsey Johnson I grew up with…but it is no less welcome!  Visit my Pinterest board here to see more Betsey Johnson ads, patterns, and clothing from her pre-1990s era.

My only small regret to my dress is the way the fine details and design lines get lost in the print.  I am a big fan of how the waistline comes up to ride the top of my hips at the sides but dips down low for both the center front and back.  It is a beautiful design that is interesting and makes for great ease of movement.  It also seems to be a popular feature for Betsey Johnson because she reused this same undulating waistline on her other Butterick patterns (no. 6536 and no. 6529, as well as no. 3292) as well as many of her ready-to-wear dresses.  This style of waistline pairs perfectly with the different layout of gathered waist where it is only gathered in at the center back and front.  With the sides being kept smooth, this really creates a slimming silhouette that I am obsessed over.  My hips are big enough the way it is and the combination of princess seaming in torso, dropped waist, and controlled skirt gathers all help me feel that I have lot a few pounds (even if only in appearance).  Any dress which can do that is a winner.  Usually teenager’s clothing does not simultaneously work well for a grown woman’s style, but Betsy Johnson has found a way around that.

My sole slight change to the pattern was to adjust the neckline.  I raised the dip of the front scoop neck by about 5/8 inch and eliminated the facings.  I love the simplicity and smoothness to a bias finished neckline, so I went for that instead.  Bias tape does tight curves so well, especially when sewn on with a tiny seam allowance that needs no clipping, and is much less fussy than facings.  After all, Alley Cat garments were meant to be bare-bones and not high end.  This was so that her intended market of urban teens and juniors from big cities (like New York or L.A.) would find them “reasonably priced” (yet Betsey’s “always under $100” garments equal about $750 dollars today).  Imitating the finishing of a 1970s Betsey Johnson dress gave me an excuse to do machine made top stitching and basic finished seams inside (I’ve been doing a lot of nice hand stitched projects lately).  Her 1990s and 2000 era silk dresses in my wardrobe are much finer in French seams and full linings, but this “frontier frock” was the perfect way to have an easy-to-make project for myself.

This dress may not be a knockout, but it is fun and ultimately comfortable with a great fit.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything related to the creation of this dress more than I show because this was an especially personal challenge.  It pushed me to add an alternate appreciation to what I thought I knew about a designer I have already admire and respect.  Every backstory to a designer’s history tells so much about why and what they did later in their life.  For all the fame designers can garner, they are just like any other human being who deserves empathy and appreciation, after all.  So I hope this post inspires you to take a look at Betsey Johnson and realize there is so much more to the “frontier look” than you may have realized.  Perhaps her style speaks to you, like it does to me? 

Kelly’s Button Bonanza

A ground level view of my version of a Patrick Kelly dress…

Anyone who shares my name of Kelly is of course going to immediately pique my curiosity.  I have already channeled the royal actress Grace Kelly a few times (both here and here), so it was high time to dive into the history of another famous namesake.  Patrick Kelly has already been a designer I have greatly respected, admired, and been interested in.  Then, press for the current costume exhibit “Runway of Love”, presenting his life and designs, has recently brought him anew into my thoughts.  However, it was also my desire to do something worthwhile with an old dress of mine that ultimately drove me deeper in a renewed understanding of just how deserved is the renown given to Patrick Kelly. 

In his honor, I gravitated towards Patrick Kelly’s penchant for using a plethora of buttons to up-cycle a ready-to-wear black knit dress that has been sitting in my wardrobe, unloved and unworn for over a decade.  One way to understand someone is to actively put yourself in their place.  I tried to do that (in a lesser degree) by working with over 100 varied buttons to find a taste of Patrick Kelly’s joy and creativity, as well as comprehend his talent.  The resulting “new-and-improved” little black dress is my own interpretation of his vision, nevertheless, not a copy of anything Patrick Kelly made.

It’s raining down buttons on the designer Patrick Kelly in this picture!

Patrick Kelly was born on September 24, 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As a black man growing up in the Southern states of America, he fought through his life’s setbacks, his surrounding society’s prejudices, and the partiality practiced in the fashion design world.  Eventually, he made his way to Paris with the help of his friendship with the supermodel Pat Cleveland.  In 1988, he became the 1st American inducted to the “Chambre Syndicale”, a prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry that determines which fashion design houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses.  Most people know the names of other members to the Syndicale – Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy to list just a few.  However, as an American myself, I am painfully aware of the fact that Patrick Kelly is not as collectively well-known as his fellow designer counterparts, so I am personally doing something here to help make up for that!  I love that he succeeded by being determined and dedicated to his creative vision.  It is commendable how he stayed true to himself and his simple upbringing at the same time, not changing for the sake of climbing that ladder of fame.  Patrick Kelly had a uniquely joyous personality that shines through to his exuberant designs.  He epitomizes the garish fashions of the 1980s, but in the best way possible because he was celebrating his roots, the beauty of all women, and the happiness of living.  He died young at age 35 on New Year’s Day 1990.    

Fall-Winter 1986-1987, Patrick Kelly collection, from “Runway of Love” exhibit at the de Young museum in San Francisco

Patrick Kelly helps me see what it means “to sew” in a whole new light.  He personally was not skilled at garment construction, and struggled with a sewing machine to the point that he threw his appliance out his apartment window in frustration one day.  Yet, from a young age, Kelly’s aunt instilled in him the basic hand sewing skills he needed to mend, repair, and provide basic garment upkeep.  His Grandma, who helped raise him after his father died, inspired him by the way she would always replace his missing shirt buttons with mismatched, multicolored buttons from her notions box.  He never forgot to appreciate his childhood memories.  After moving to Atlanta, Georgia through the 1970s to attend fashion design school, Kelly supported himself by working at an AMVETS thrift shop.  He soon began selling his first creations which were vintage and secondhand garments from the store that he upcycled, refashioned, or added decorative notions (found lost on the floors at the thrift shop) to transform into something uniquely one-of-a-kind.  

1986 – Patrick Kelly, sleeveless black knit dress with button bustier

Why is it that the sewing culture of today acts as if this practice of re-working existing items is merely an on-trend thing to do for thriftiness, personal enjoyment, or social consciousness?  Why isn’t it expressly clear to the general mainstream public that such a practice reached the level of official French couture only 40 years ago and therefore deserves a higher level of regard than it currently has?!  This isn’t even addressing the fact that you don’t even need a machine or anything other than basic mending skills to do a Patrick Kelly dress, thus challenging the very ideas of sewing stereotypes.  Yes, sewing is more than just a skill, he has shown how it is also self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity, and (most importantly) joy in the process.

Thus, to create his preliminary ‘brand’ image in the 80’s, Patrick Kelly utilized what he could do, what inspired him, and what was immediately available to create something amazing.  Using knit tube dresses as his canvas blanks, he worked with something that is so commonplace – buttons – people can all immediately relate to his designs more than most other pieces from couture houses.  Yet, at the same time he elevated buttons on garments into an awe inspiring art form.  Such a technique may look simple to replicate, but like most really good garments, there is a highly challenging level of execution hiding under the guise of effortlessness.  I can vouch for this truth, just from the small scale button project that I attempted for myself!

To start with, my dress is more complicated than the seamless knit tubes that Patrick Kelly would work with, so I had to be adaptive enough to make my button placement different.  Every time I attempt to imitate something that has been made by a designer, my version has to be my own twist out of respect to the unique genius of each one of us.  I am not convinced by the “imitation is a form of flattery” phrase and rather prefer to believe that tapping into one’s individuality is the best tribute.  The design lines to my dress prevented the possibility of any buttons being added across the entire dress body, as many Patrick Kelly designs have.  Thus, I internalized my inner artist to feel out a way to display the buttons on my dress in a way that makes my own imaginative statement…but more on that later.  Right now, let’s dive into the how to sew on 130 individual buttons, and not the why!

My dress has a basic bodice, which joins to a wiggle skirt, pleated in at the high waistline.  It is a comfy piece that still fit me perfectly (and had pockets, too) so I felt it was worth saving.  Just the very fact I was looking for something to do with my black dress, immediately led me to think of Patrick Kelly…and there was a mixed mega bag of assorted buttons at my local fabric store which has been calling to me like a siren’s call ever since I noticed it there.  Yes, I felt bad that I was buying a new bag of buttons when there are so many large canning jars full of various vintage buttons at all the local thrift and antique stores.  I felt guilty that I was not approaching this refashion the way Patrick Kelly would have.  However, none of the button jars I came across were a colorful enough assortment for my creative vision.   

A close-up to the front neckline of my dress. See how I changed up the ways of sewing down a button?

To channel the spirit of Patrick Kelly’s works, it is important to go big and bold, choosing the brightest shades to create a true statement piece. Thus, I chose to buy two “Big Bag of Buttons” packs from “Favorite Findings”, which has an assorted mix of sizes, opacity, finish, and colors to offer.  I chose the color way that struck me as an almost neon blend of a lime green, sunshine yellow, hot pink, fresh orange, and a bright blue.  To have this burst of lively color pop off of a dark inky black background reminds me of the way Patrick Kelly wanted to be someone who could make people smile through their troubles.  He once said “There’s so much sadness in the world. And if you can stick a button on something or funny hat, I’m the one for you. I hope when they (people) think about me, they think of being happy.”    

I can’t get enough of the beautiful array of buttons I added on my dress!

Finding and choosing just one layout to settle on for decorating my dress with the plethora of buttons was an agonizing process.  I had so many different ideas I wanted to commit to, at this rate I could do plenty more Patrick Kelly inspired button dresses of my own!  Anyways, once I settled upon one idea, I laid out as many buttons as I could the way I wanted them, traced around them with tailors chalk, an then moved them out onto the floor next to my dress in the exact same lay out.  Sounds easy, right?  Not really.  It is easy to get confused when trying to match what is on the floor back onto my dress.  I took lots of quick phone pictures to help me remember the button placement along the way and sew in a way close to my original idea.  The whole process was so time consuming, needing complete mental focus. 

I quickly discovered that I had to sew one button on at a time.  At first I thought I could interlace the buttons to make the process smoother.  However, I quickly realized I had to tie each one off separately because the fabric is a knit, thus needing to stretch unconfined in between all the buttons.  Trying to remember to keep the spacing and the layout, see the chalk marks that faded with every touch, and figure out placement in between sewing every button was exhausting.  Then, keeping the entire household away from the area of the floor where I was working was stressful…if anyone kicked the buttons around, I was ruined.  This dress has definitely been the top craziest thing I have done amongst my sewing projects.  I am really curious how Patrick Kelly dresses’ insides look because I wonder if he had a better way to do this, or had some quick trick that I haven’t thought of.  Slowly seeing the design come together with every button group I sewed on was the only saving grace that gave me both hope and patience to finish this project idea. 

The buttons on the front and back skirt took me a total of 8 hours to sew onto the dress, while the neckline buttons took me almost 4 hours, for an overall total of almost 13 hours.  Whew!  This is what I was talking about when I said (above) that it may look like these kind of dresses are easy, but it’s a real eye opener to try one out for yourself.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “There is more than meets the eye” are some adages that can apply perfectly to a Patrick Kelly dress, even if only talking about a paltry imitation by a home sewist like myself! 

As interesting as this dress was to refashion, it is also very interesting to wear.  Having that many buttons, even if only lightweight plastic, really does add substantial weight to the dress.  Each button pack was almost 4 ounces alone, and I used two packs.  That is half of a pound in added button weight!  I am really thankful that my base dress’ knit fabric was a thick, stable knit.  I half-heartedly thought to myself, at the outset of this project idea, that the hefty weight of the knit would hold the buttons well, but I did not realize how important having a thicker knit would be until all the buttons were sewn on.  Also, I was surprised to discover that all the knots inside the dress from where I tied off all the buttons can become slightly bothersome the longer the dress is worn.  I now wish I would have tied off the ends from the right side of the dress, under the buttons.  This issue is mostly resolved by wearing a full slip underneath the dress, but it is a point worth noting.  Finally, to hear how the buttons click together and jangle when I wear the dress is entertaining enough to make me chuckle under my breath.  It is almost like a dull chiming music for me to move, sit, or walk in my dress.  This is the most surprising effect, and one that I really enjoy.  In all this dress, has been a project chock full of surprises and curious discoveries.

Patrick Kelly designs – Woman’s Ensemble Coat and Dresses, fall-winter 1986

I wonder if these interesting ‘side effects’ are not unique to my imitation dress but also something shared by a true Patrick Kelly button garment.  Since he often worked with older vintage buttons, many of which are metal or shell, I can imagine that his dresses were even heavier than my plastic button dress.  I expect his button dresses (as he was an official couture house) to not have the harsh knots inside, as mine does…but who knows, though!  The insides of a garment tell its full story, and couture of the past often is relegated to museum collections, thus it is hard to actually be able for a curious sewist like me to discover the details found in the guts at an up-close, personal setting.  I have been looking for pictures online from listings of Patrick Kelly dresses for sale, but not many of his button creations seem to be found for sale, and neither do those listings have images of the inner garment workings.  Some things from the designer world are best left a mystery, after all, I suppose.

The artistic vision behind the placement and color choice of the buttons on my dress is supposed to call to mind the life giving symbiotic relationship of the sun and the rain.  My neckline has the ‘water’ in the blue color that trickles down in drips that fade from green to clear yellow by being touched by the sun.  The rays which stretch out from my bottom left skirt hem corner reach out towards the rain, and filter between the classic colors chosen to represent the sun – orange and yellow – and the pink…like a beautiful early morning sunrise.  Is there anything more enlivening than watching the dawn of a new day touch the wet morning dew? 

My photo location’s wall mural is a tribute to the 1980s culture.  It is has classic mid 80s computer gaming references that only those in the know will recognize.  I love that here is a giant figure of Link, the protagonist of Nintendo‘s video game franchise The Legend of Zelda.  The game dates to 1986, the same year for the Patrick Kelly button dress that were my primary inspiration!  I love how the wall mural brings out the colors in my dress, as well as referencing the way Patrick Kelly was a mixed media artist on the side.  He always began a runway show with a can of paint to spray a quick little artistic message on the back wall.

National Sewing Month (September) may be over now, but I have not yet moved on from the reflections and revelations I had in the spirit of such a dedication.  If speaking about physical project production, September is never really anything different for me because sewing is a part of my life on a regular basis.  However, celebrating such a dedication for the month prompts me to at least think back on what I have made and celebrate my achievements.  Most importantly, however, I like to reconsider the why, the what, and the ideology behind sewing.  In this quest, I have happily discovered a new appreciation for a designer I have known of but never previously thoroughly educated myself on – the great Patrick Kelly.  To me, his life and his triumphs are not just inspirational on their own apart from the fashion world, but they are also the epitome of what sewing is all about.  Please look through the pictures and explore the site links to be found on my “Patrick Kelly” Pinterest page for more on his life and his work!   

Snow Bunny Bomber

There is a certain energy I, my husband, and son all feel when it snows.  It is a cheerful bust of fresh insight and renewed vivacity.  We HAVE to get outside to be in the middle of the weather, too.  However, I for one do not in the least like the cold so I love the challenge of dressing up in the utmost fashion while still staying cozy and warm.  Hubby calls me a “snow bunny” when I am so perfectly put together in my handmade wardrobe for the snowy weather.  All I know is that when I feel fabulous in my chic, me-made items that in itself brings on bonus energy…and compliments from others.  Yes, you really can wear something other than boring, practical clothes for the snow.  After all, it is the prettiest of weather occurrences, in my opinion, for where we live! 

So, here is my latest, greatest, and newest “snow bunny” sewing project for our most recent winter storm – an 80’s era faux fur bomber jacket.  It has an integral scarf feature to keep me ultimately cozy.  The “fur” has a thick knit base for comfort and ease of movement.  The hem bindings and scarf are soft, matching fleece.  It has dramatic batwing sleeves and an unexpected asymmetric closing.  Best of all, it is a designer style from my favorite couture creator, Emanuel Ungaro! 

The soft texture and icy light blue color suits as a proper follow up to my previous post, my Snow Queen inspired “Pandemic Princess” dress.  Not that this is actually a part of that blog series, but I certainly had my recent princess dress still on my mind when I whipped this jacket together, you can tell.  It is related, but separate.  That Snow Queen dress was my last project for 2020 and this related jacket was my first for 2021.  Crown or no crown, the inner modern princess in me delights in the practical luxury of this fun and warm little coat.  The falling snow is the best backdrop visual compliment to it I could have possibly wanted.

If you notice the details, there is a lot of older pieces from on hand which came together perfectly for this outfit.  For keeping my scarf in place, I included a giant snowflake pin, which I have had for many years now.  The beige boots and Isotoner brand gloves are 80’s vintage pieces from my mom back from before my time.  My skirt is something I had bought RTW from the early 2000 decade but has a nice touch of vintage reference to it, I think.  It is almost 30’s style with its fit-and-flare design and suit inspired herringbone acrylic knit material.  Yet, the 80’s rehashed many decades successfully and besides – a slim fitting bottom separate is the best option for a poufy jacket like this one.  I’ve always wanted something me-made and dressy to match with this skirt ever since I got it so many years back.  Finally, that idea has come true and it is glorious.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  One yard of a polyester faux fur combined with scraps of a polyester anti-pill fleece leftover from making this 60’s inspired Burda Style cocoon coat.

PATTERN:  Vogue Paris Original Design #1620, year 1985

NOTIONS NEEDED:  Just thread and a two hook-and-eyes, which I had on hand. No interfacing needed!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was made in 15 hours and finished on January 4, 2021.

TOTAL COST:  I got the fur on sale and the fleece was remnants (thus free) so the total was only about $10.

I had been holding onto the materials used on this coat for 2 years.  Only recently did inspiration suddenly strike as to what to do with the faux fur and fleece remnants.  I originally though a puffy vest might look good, or a princess-seamed moto jacket.  I only had one yard of fur to work with after all and scraps of random sizes.  Then I suddenly thought of how unconventional fashion choices appear so much more tasteful when using designer inspiration.  There is almost no one designer I favor more than Ungaro for killer coats, jackets, and suit blazers.  This is my second jacket design of Ungaro’s that I have made (see the first one here) from my pattern stash. I have many more patterns of his in my cabinets yet to make, so, after how much I like the two I have sewn, consider this the beginning of an obsession. 

Anyway, I figured, as I wanted this to match with a particular blue skirt (as I mentioned above), I had certain styles to figure which would complement but contrast with its slim silhouette.  I also wanted something new and different, something unlike what I currently have.  This wide and generous bomber jacket style was a happy guess-timate on my part.  I like bold fashion choices and I know it, which is why the 80’s is so appealing to me.  It would be such a relief if only I could get past the crushing self-doubt I have to deal with every time I create such a project. 

This faux fur is really sparse in loftiness or the ‘hair’ and therefore was easy to work with.  It reminds me of the kind of fur that is used for the ‘skin’ of such characters as Elmo, Grover, and Oscar who are on “Sesame Street” or Animal from “The Muppets”.  I only had to do minor parting of the fur at the minimal seams that were on this jacket.  I did no clipping of the fur as I prefer the long nap of it.  I also used a ball point needle in my machine to sew it and that worked out smoothly as there is a thick chain knitted backing.  It is soft underneath and not scratchy so I followed the instructions and did not line the coat.  I don’t need convincing to keep a simple project, well…simple. Amazingly, this is plenty warm being one layer.  

What adds to the warmth of the jacket is a combo of the fact that the front is a double-breasted wrap and there is an integral scarf collar.  My hubby said that the features of this coat reminded him of the 1950s, and turns out he wasn’t far off.  I have found several instances of integral scarf collar jackets and suits coats used on designer fashions of the late 50’s to early 60’s.  I did not interface the collar because you want it to be more like an attached scarf you cannot loose (so handy).  The pattern for it was all one piece that is folded in half, ending in an angled, pointed seam just like all those vintage original examples I show.  I love how the collar scarf follows the asymmetric neckline, closing on the left shoulder.   

The chest of the coat is double layered because it completely wraps around to close at the inner shoulder seam, oppositely of the scarf closing (right side).  I sewed in an oversize hook-and-eye in this spot and it is almost hidden in the plushness of the knit underside.  This way my jacket is just as neat if I choose to leave the scarf neck open instead of closed.  It is kind of similar to a moto jacket when worn with the neck scarf undone, a style I had a mind to possibly choose anyway.  There is a still a little room for versatility here.

One look at the envelope cover and you can see the one major detail I did leave out – the peplum.  Especially when paired with the matching skirt, I just could not like the peplum on the jacket.  I cut them out, and made them, and pinned them to the bottom of the otherwise finished main body.  I don’t know how the models made the original design seem so appealing, but the peplum made my jacket seem to drown me and become frumpy in style overall.  Part of my issue was that my peplum was cut in the same contrast fleece I chose for the scarf collar.  I had no other choice working on such limited cuts of material!  I believe the peplum issue comes down to the fact it added too much of a different color and texture to pair well with the fur of the main body.

This jacket was originally supposed to be a wrap closing at the waist but with the peplum gone, that would no longer work.  I cut off the long ties I had sewn into the side seams and unpicked the longer of the two.  Then I turned it into a hem casing and added a hook-and-eye at the corresponding spots along the new waistline.  (The front waistline pleats match together.)  Later I turned that second shorter tie into something worthwhile, so my tweaks to the design after the fact I were not a complete loss.

As the exterior fur is slightly itchy, I adapted the sleeve hems to match with the new waist hem.  I luckily had some pre-made fleece blanket binding which happened to be the same color as the fleece I was using.  I hand sewed strips of that over the wrist hem underneath the fur.  Just enough of the binding is sticking out to both be noticed and prevent the fur from touching my skin.  Hand sewing was easy because the wrist openings were skinny fitting and the fur covers up the thread nicely.  This is why I also hand stitched down the facing inside along the front jacket openings.  Designer inspired projects always deserve fine finishing.

Ungaro’s year 1985 jacket was an incredibly easy project for being a Designer Vogue pattern. This, coupled with the unused waist tie and peplum, led me to take the extra step to whip up a small accessory for myself out of the leftover remnants.  I made a little headband out of the tubing of the one waist tie left!  I cut the length of it in half, wrapped those two halves around each other, then hand tacked the joining fold where they meet in the center.  Finally, I stitched the ends together to a small cut of brown elastic (to match my hair).  It was easy, impromptu, and fun with no pattern needed!  I can always use a cute winter accessory.  I am still left with challenge of finding a good way to reuse the peplum’s fleece.  Should I try handmade gloves, maybe, for something very different and novel?  Or maybe a pair of 1940s era house slippers?  I have a pattern for almost anything here on hand.

What is commonly seen as inclement weather, is merely an opportunity to for me to keep off the chill in self-made style.  ‘Warm but fashionable’ is a combo I do not see most RTW fashion offering unless it is in a higher end price range.  If you can sew, though, those boundaries do not apply.  I made this on one yard and some remnants.  It was designer made in under 20 hours.  Send your worst, winter.  My wardrobe is prepared for you and my pocketbook is not on empty either.  

I hope you enjoy the snow as much as I do…but perhaps you don’t even get to see it at all where you live.  It transforms the cold into a visual delight (that is only good until you have to drive in it).  If you have made an item to counter your inclement weather, something that you feel great in but is useful at the same time, let me know!  I want to see how others interpret such a challenge of overcoming the elements in style.

An “Appointment” with the Baroque

The word “baroque”, widely used since the nineteenth century, comes from the Portuguese word “barroco” meaning “misshapen pearl”, a negative description of the ornate and heavily embellished music of this period (circa 1600 to 1750). The name has also come to apply to the architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, dance, as well as fashion of the same time period.  The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated details and sensuous richness used to produce a sense of drama, exuberance, and grandeur. 

There is no better example of this rich style of dressing in our modern fashion than the two designer lines of both Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.  Am I a too much of a rebel to admire both enough equally to combine their distinctive elements into one self-made interpretation of Baroque dressing?  How about adding some Hollywood inspiration to the mix as the base for my creative efforts?  The film industry and designer clothing goes together quite often after all!  In this dress, I will pretend to be a wealthy aristocrat strolling to the music of Bach in my private rose garden for a true Baroque experience.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a polyester scuba knit in a large scale paneled print, with the bodice edges faced in a beige cotton-poly broadcloth (which ends up being interfaced, too); the button placket edges are of a heavyweight cotton sateen (leftover from this blouse)

PATTERN:  Advance #5550, from July of 1950

NOTIONS:  All I practically needed was a lot of thread and some interfacing.  The closures of the dress required one small skirt side zipper (7 inch) and lots of buttons.  Luckily, back in 2011 I had bought two packs of “Dress It Up” buttons, and I used some from both the “Victorian Miniatures” pack as well as the “Nostalgic Treasures” pack.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finally finished on September 9, 2020 after about 30 something hours spent to retrace and grade out the pattern, assemble the dress multiple times to make up for the bad fit, and then all the finishing details.

THE INSIDES:  left raw as scuba does best

TOTAL COST:  This material was sent to me in April 2018 for free.  It was part of my prize from “Minerva Crafts and Fabrics” for winning the 2017 Vintage Pledge sponsored by Marie at “A Stitching Odyssey”.

A recent purchase of a new-to-me vintage pattern had interesting features that I saw as a probable compliment to my paneled, oversized scuba print.  All the scallops along the bodice edges and the basic blocked bodice and skirt pieces were a natural pairing to my prize fabric and worked well with the rolling print and oversized scale of the fabric.  The scuba knit made construction a bit easier (no edge finishing needed, either) and provided the dress some ‘body’ without stiffness.  After all, this was my excuse to get around to using my amazing supplies of both pattern and fabric sooner than later!  Besides, after the previous post, I can still stay on-topic by continuing to explore the possibilities of neoprene material for something that is true vintage, designer inspired, and a movie style all-in-one. 

As is alluded to on the pattern cover, the dress’ design was first worn by the actress Jan Sterling, designed by Mary Kay Dodson, a costume designer who worked under Edith Head at Paramount, under contract between 1944 and 1951.  (If you’re feeling curious, just look at this fantastic chartreuse suit Dodson designed for another movie!

The dress from my pattern is out of an old Noir genre movie which tells the story of a fictional peril to the United States Postal Service, titled “Appointment with Danger” starring Alan Ladd.  The film was lucky to have just be seen by audiences – having gone through several names and stalling for almost 5 years before being released.  (This is why the pattern cover has a different title for the same movie!)  Besides the sultry Jan Sterling, there is no other real female fashion inspiration to “Appointment with Danger” so it’s a good thing her few dresses were fantastic when compared to the only other woman in the film, a religious nun, Sister Augustine as played by Phillis Calvert.   

Dolce & Gabbana have a religious flair to many of their creations, paired with the frequent Sicilian influence (the cultural roots of Domenico Dolce), and so for me the gold scrollwork often calls to mind an old church or Renaissance opulence.  One of the pieces from their fourth collection was labeled “The Sicilian Dress” by the fashion press, and was named by author Hal Rubenstein as one of the 100 most important dresses ever designed.  Rubenstein described the piece in 2012 by writing, “The Sicilian dress is the essence of Dolce & Gabbana, the brand’s sartorial touchstone.”  

Yet, at the same time, the 2018 Met Gala theme of “Heavenly Bodies” solidified the manner by which the house of Versace could also mimic the same vein as Dolce & Gabbana, as seen on the late but great Chadwick Boseman.  Versace is commonly known for its striking use of chains as a print and large scale panels.  However, both do frequently use the primary colors of white, black, a golden yellow as well as interesting textures and feminine styles. 

I heavily referred to Dolce & Gabbana directly by my details – choice of buttons, the red rose hair corsage I made, and my Sam Edelman brand leather platform heels in animal print.  I really don’t have many sets of 12 buttons, and none of them paired well with this dress, so I went with the showy and eclectic answer of using all different buttons on this unconventional dress project. (See the “Notions” section of “The Facts” above.)  All the buttons luckily need the same size button hole and all are fully workable buttons (and button holes) – no fakes just for show. The most interesting ones – a cherub’s head, a Fleur-dis-lis, and a sun – are all along the shoulder while several miss-matching round golden buttons are along the sides under my arms.  I love the subtlety but unusualness of it, but in reality doing so helped clear out my random buttons from my stash and stayed true to the “more is more” spirit of Dolce & Gabbana. 

My Versace tribute is in my fabric’s print and by wearing vintage chain jewelry.  My jewelry is from my Grandmother and by a well-respected small Italian designer who came to America at the end of WWII.  “Jewels by Julio” items are said to be are hard to find today.  Such marked pieces are by Julio J. Marsella, who created high quality jewelry from 1946-1957. He was a perfectionist who sang Italian Opera with the same skill that he created jewelry. His jewelry was considered to be on par with Hobe, Hattie Carnegie, and Dior (by Kramer) pieces for quality and desirability.  It is most likely only plated and has a warm authentic gold color that has aged nicely and pairs well with my dress.  Even though the actual print of my fabric is more Dolce & Gabbana, the colors and the way it is laid out is very Versace.  There are still chains in the borders to the panels, after all.   

My heart will always be tied to Italy, especially Milan, the founding place for both companies.  My first trip out of my country and into Italy was a 3 day visit to that town!  Thus, this outfit takes me back in sentiment to a place I remember so vividly as the experience of a lifetime.  As a 19 year old, I was unfortunately not equipped with the pocketbook to splurge on things I had then admired in the store windows.  Yet, now I can sew whatever I set my mind to.  This outfit is my hometown, homemade version of a replacement!  Thus, my post’s outfit is also my submission for Linda’s “Designin’ December 2020” challenge at the blog “Nice dress! Thanks, I made it!!”

For the 2 ½ yards of fabric which were gifted to me, there were 3 ½ panels for me to work with for my dress.  Two of the panels immediately went towards the front and the back of the skirt respectively.  The last full panel went toward to the bodice, both front and back.  I added a center front vertical seam to accommodate the way I wanted the print to lay.  With the main border running up either side of the front center seam, the torso is lengthened visually to offset the full, wide skirt.  The angled, radiating front bust darts nip in the waist perfectly – just as I hoped – by creating the image of the sides to the bodice wrapping over the center border.  The back bodice reminds me of a glorious chandelier the way the scrollwork seems to drip down from my shoulders.  I wanted to widen my shoulders from behind with this layout, and thereby complement the waist in a different manner than what I employed for the front.  I had to get inventive as I had limited fabric to work with.  I do love a good sewing challenge…with exceptions.

After all the raving and seeming glowing words I have given my outfit so far, reaching the point where the dress was actually wearable and properly fitting me was a very frustrating journey.  The proportions to the dress pattern were so completely off whack that I was mind blown.  Yes – I love the final result of my dogged determination to see this project perfected.  Yet, what was shown on both the cover drawing and the line art specifics was something so very different than what the actual tissue paper turns out.  All the details shown were still there.  However, where the skirt and bust landed on me were all wrong.  I should have listened to my gut instinct when I noticed such on the tissue…only I’ve never seen a pattern this far off and considered that I must have been the one measuring wrong.  Nope!  This one pattern has both a sizing and proportions problem, the likes of which I have never seen.  If I hadn’t been using the very forgiving and easy-to-work with scuba knit, this dress would have easily become a sewing project straight from hell.  

The actual size of the pattern was very tiny (a 28 inch bust!!) and so I graded up an inch less than what I assumed I needed due to working with a stretch knit.  Width wise grading was the only adaptations I traced out when prepping this pattern, and my work was not the cause of my issues with the design.  I did notice right off the bat when laying out the pieces and checking measurements on the tissue pattern that the waist length from shoulder to skirt seam was really quite long…and I only trimmed off 2 inches because even that much taken off seemed extreme, right?!  I also lengthened the center-radiating, French-style bust darts to actually come up to where they should on me.  I sewed up most all of the dress, stitching once and tried it on.

Agh!  The ‘waistline’ ended at my high hip, the front bodice was still huge, and the neckline was so small I couldn’t even button it closed.  After lots of unpicking of thread, cutting of new seams, and even some crying, I started fresh again.  I cut off another 2 inches from the bodice length, stitched in the vertical center bodice seam making the front smaller by 2 inches, and cut the V neckline lower by 2 inches as well, then finally sewed the uber-gathered skirt in again and called it good.  Let’s realize I took out a total of 4 inches from the length of the bodice!  The line drawing shows the ‘waistline’ should have where my hips are…so weird!  Something went wrong with this pattern because even a long-torso woman could not be 20 something inches from the shoulder to the waist. 

I lost each one of the bottom side scallops in the process of re-fitting.  See how the movie dress has four on each side and I only have 3 on each side.  That worked for me because I didn’t have any more buttons anyway.  How in the world did the four button arrangement work on the movie dress with actress Jan Sterling still having a naturally placed waistline for the dress?!  Were the scallops drafted smaller, maybe half the width as the Advance pattern’s?  Did Ms. Sterling have an impossibly tiny Barbie sized neck?  Perhaps the Advance pattern wasn’t even directly drafted from the movie dress at all, like I am assuming. I’ll never know.  Nevertheless, all is well that ends well, as the saying goes, and the good thing is no one would ever guess the troubles and frustrations it took to finish my outfit.

There was a nearby companion to my photo shoot who did not have to go through the bother I did to look so striking.  It was a Yellow Garden Spider, waiting it in its web for an evening snack.  This is a larger spider than what I am used to seeing around town – several inches in diameter when you include the long legs – and it was rather creepy to see an arachnid in the garden which would take up the whole palm of my hand.  It was matching me in color and was too dramatic of a creature to not appreciate, though!  This is exactly the kind of thing I could see becoming inspiration for a designer dress.  Let’s talk about the killer print that spider is wearing on its back!!  Its scientific Latin name translates to “gilded silver-face”.  For having a plain term for its English name, this spider could be baroque by the way it has drama, loads of interest to its details, and it still respectfully regal.   

This is a fun and different thing for me to make that is still so very wearable.  Dressed in this, it brightens my day, brings a smile to my face, and makes me swish around feeling imaging myself a princess for the moment.  The fact that I have on some higher-end brand, extreme 5 inch heels feeds my unreasonable enjoyment for tall shoes.  (They not only lengthen my legs but bring me up to my hubby’s stature level, he he).  Being a modern scuba print and not something heavily embroidered or fine silk like a true designer item keeps it more akin to ‘normal’ – albeit fancy – clothes.  Upon arriving at the first place I wore this dress, I immediately received compliment.  Apparently my dress must share with its viewers the same happy feeling I have when wearing it!  This is proof that making my own spoof on something designer I have admired for years ends up doing good all around, much more so than if I had broken my bank account to splurge on a true Versace or Dolce & Gabbana.  Dolce himself has said, “A dress should live the personality of the woman who wears it.”

There is still time to create your own designer inspired ‘copy’ for “Designin’ December” since the challenge runs until the end of the year!